Bad Clint Eastwood movies tend to play like parodies of good Clint Eastwood movies, and his latest, a loose dramatization of the Wineville Chicken Murders and the accompanying media blitz and police scandal that rocked Los Angeles in the late 1920s, is almost a bigger muddle than Flags of Our Fathers. Angelina Jolie is Christine Collins, whose nine-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), goes missing one day and is returned to her by police some five months later—except they return the wrong boy and Christine, a flapper-type who suggests a Tim Burton corpse bride, will have nothing to do with what appears to be a lunatic police department’s perverse effort to correct their piss-poor public image. Throughout the film, a myriad series of dramas and agendas vie for our attention, each painted in strokes as broad as the ones Eastwood applied to Maggie Fitzgerald’s family in Million Dollar Baby, so it’s a small miracle that Jolie makes even half the impression she does given all of the funereal flotsam and jetsam she must wade through.
At its best when it stays on Christine, the film casually condemns but hardly elaborates on the subjugation of women in American society—at least never with the poignancy, caustic insight or surprise Mad Men imparts every week (whereas the AMC show scrutinizes surface, Changeling is simply one). But Christine is a trooper, and her struggle to be heard by police—namely by the vile Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan)—intermittingly gives the film an electric jolt. Jolie’s work in A Mighty Heart was unconvincing, but here she goes deeper, using the cadences of her late mother’s voice and memories of the woman, as well as her love for her own children, for touching inspiration. It’s an over-thought performance, for sure, often compromised by Eastwood’s stilted, fashion-glossy framing of the actress’s face, but Jolie’s emotions are real enough, and her conviction recalls Julianne Moore’s fine contribution—another one of her great riffs on Mother Courage—to the dumb Blindness.
In Fernando Meirelles’s latest, Moore stars as the only woman in the world who can see, and in a great scene she must pretend to be blind while a group of guards at her makeshift prison get their sick rocks off by leading her to and away from a stash of food she can easily see in front of her. It’s a moment of dizzying depth, most of which is conveyed by an impeccable mix of horror and rage that quivers across every angle of Moore’s face. Jolie gets a similar scene in Changeling after Christine declaims too vigilantly that police didn’t bring back the same child she birthed, raised and loved all his life, after which she’s shipped to a mental institution where she’s hilariously briefed by a prostitute (Amy Ryan) about the pathetic ins and outs of the place. Through the pap of these scenes, Jolie gives sad expression to the trapeze act Christine must walk—between showing too much emotion and not enough—when she meets with the doctor conspiring with police to convince her that she was given the right Walter.
Changeling announces itself as an autopsy of an expansive body of lies that it never actually performs, and as such the surprisingly graceless and phony aesthetic is what lingers most. (A book could be written about how Jolie is lit, dressed and framed, and if you also consider the script’s reference to the 1935 Oscar ceremony where It Happened One Night reigned supreme, it becomes easy to write off Changeling as shameless awards bait.) Eastwood subsumes everything in histrionically lethargic period detail, but the film’s obsessive veneer never feels reflective of the time period. Like the tinkling ivories that tritely and repetitively clog the soundtrack, the film’s style scans as empty posturing, not unlike the ash that falls from the cigarette Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) smokes after learning what may have actually happened to Walter—a shot that’s practically symbolic of the film’s tragically digressive attention span.
The title is a reference to the film’s two Walters but may also describe Eastwood’s jarring shifts in register. The filmmaker sketches all of his characters in one-dimensional extremes, from the ghouls at the police force to the reverend (John Malkovich) whose unelaborated beef with the Los Angeles police department simply explains the vigilance with which he rallies behind Christine. Perhaps Changeling never feels deep because it always feels distracted, playing lip service to its themes and never knowing how to play Christine’s struggle: From police station to mental institution to courtroom, she alternately suggests a proto feminist, Rihanna in her Marilyn Manson-ed video for the horrid “Disturbia,” and Clarice Starling. A dull genre hopscotch, then, and one with too many endings to count, Changeling is an example of a great director biting off more than he cares to chew, functioning mostly as its own Oscar campaign.